Hearing management

Updated 11 December 2017

Sound may be modified for cochlear implant hearing aid users

Doctors are working alongside cochlear specialists to re-engineer and simplify music, making sound more enjoyable for listeners with cochlear implants.


When hearing loss becomes so severe that hearing aids no longer help, a cochlear implant not only amplifies sound but also lets people hear speech clearly.

Music is a different story.

"I've pretty much given up listening to music and being able to enjoy it," says Prudence Garcia-Renart, a musician who gave up playing the piano a few years ago. 

Read: Illegal hearing aids 'dangerous' 

"I've had the implant for 15 years now and it has done so much for me. Before I got the implant, I was working but I could not use a phone, I needed somebody to take notes for me at meetings, and I couldn't have conversations with more than one person. I can now use a phone, I recognise people's voices, I go to films, but music is awful."

Cochlear implants are designed to process speech, which is a much simpler auditory signal compared with music. People with severe hearing loss also have lost auditory neurons that transmit signals to the brain.

Infographic: Diagram of a cochlear implant 

It's not possible to tweak the settings of the implant to compensate for the loss of auditory neurons, says Anil Lalwani, MD, director of the Columbia Cochlear Implant Programme. "It's unrealistic to expect people with that kind of nerve loss to process the complexity of a symphony, even with an implant."

Instead, Dr Lalwani and members of Columbia's Cochlear Implant Music Engineering Group are trying to reengineer and simplify music to be more enjoyable for listeners with cochlear implants. "You don't necessarily need the entire piece to enjoy the music," Dr Lalwani says.

"Even though a song may have very complex layers, you can sometimes just enjoy the vocals, or you can just enjoy the instruments."

Right now, the group is testing different arrangements of musical compositions to learn which parts of the music are most important for listener enjoyment. "It's not the same for somebody who has normal hearing," Dr Lalwani says, "and that's what we have to learn."

Read: Testing hearing problems

Down the road, Dr Lalwani thinks software will be able to take an original piece of music and reconfigure it for listeners or give the listener the ability to engineer their own music.

"Our eventual goal, though, is to compose music for people with cochlear implants based on what we've learned," Dr Lalwani says. "Original pieces of music that will possibly have fewer rhythmic instruments, less reverb, possibly more vocals something that is actually designed for them." 

Read more:

Magic as Cape Town baby hears for the first time

Local innovation makes hearing screening services more accessible

18-year-old creates first sign language messaging app

Image: Hearing aid from iStock



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Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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